Television has had a long-term love affair with detective fiction, and like many love affairs, it has had its great moments, as well as some that are best forgotten. In the 1960s, many classics of the genre were adapted for the series Detective, and it is a shame that a good many of those episodes seem to have been lost (but please, BBC, could those that remain be made available?)
For many people, the classic detective series on television remains Inspector Morse. Excellent scripts by writers of high-calibre were matched by first-rate production values and superb acting. Good as Colin Dexter’s original novels were – and I am a long-time fan – most people would, I think, agree that the best of the TV episodes were even more memorable. And remarkably, despite the demise of both Inspector Morse and the fine actor who played him, John Thaw, the franchise continues to this day with Lewis, which maintains the high standards of the original series.
Within the past year, we have been treated to successful television adaptations of books featuring three very different cops created by three highly accomplished crime novelists. The darkest of these was Thorne, based on the twisty serial killer thrillers from the pen of Mark Billingham. So far, the adaptation of each book has been spread over three episodes. In contrast, when Peter Robinson’s popular detective was brought to the small screen in DCI Banks, starring Stephen Tompkinson as the Yorkshire-based detective, the bestselling novel Aftermath was split into two episodes.
A different approach was taken by the team which adapted Ann Cleeves’ stories about the distinctly unglamorous Vera Stanhope. Each episode of Vera lasts for two hours, in the tradition of Inspector Morse, and just as the earlier series took full advantage of the Oxford setting, so Vera features the landscape of the north-east very effectively. The lead scriptwriter is Paul Rutman, whose previous credits include episodes of Lewis, as well as a couple of contributions to Agatha Christie’s Marple.
It is fascinating to compare these series with a new series not based on books, but conceived specifically for television. Scott and Bailey is, on the evidence of the opening episode, a lively drama, the construction of which probably owes as much to the soap opera model as to detective fiction. The mystery plot in the first episode is straightforward, and much of the interest lies in the characters of the eponymous detectives. In a nod, perhaps, to realism, those detectives are constables rather more senior officers, and urban setting is much less glamorous than the locations which predominate in Lewis or Vera. And DC Scott in particular does not seem to possess remarkable powers of deduction. As the story opens, she has been in a relationship with a successful barrister for two years without managing to detect the fact that he is married with children. Inspector Morse, too, had endless problems with his love life, but I simply can’t bring myself to believe that he would ever been conned for so long.
The complaint is sometimes made that there are too many crime series on television. And it is certainly true that for every Inspector Morse there are several series which fail to hit the mark. A number of highly capable crime writers – Tim Heald, Liza Cody and Marjorie Eccles are among the names that spring to mind – have had the pleasure of seeing their books adapted for television only for the results to prove to be relatively disappointing. From an author’s point of view, it is down to luck of the draw whether one has on one’s hands a hit – or a turkey. And the success of a TV cop show does not depend on whether it was based on books or written specifically for television. Murder in Suburbia was, like Scott and Bailey, a story about female cops devised for television, but failed to earn a second series. As did Zen, based on the excellent books by the late Michael Dibdin. Happily, DCI Banks and Vera have avoided a similar fate. Whether they can match the longevity of Inspector Morse, we’ll have to wait and see.
(This article first appeared at www.bookdagger.com)